More verbs, fewer nouns
Thread poster: Phil Hand

Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 12:22
Chinese to English
Mar 25, 2015

Fascinating post from Language Log:
http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=18398
I found that writing regarded as bad (and perhaps also certain kinds of technical writing) tends to have more adjectives but fewer adverbs, and more nouns but fewer verbs.


This jibes with the way I was taught good writing, and it's fascinating to see a quantitative demonstration. Stodgy technical writing really does have more nouns, and "bad" fiction does too!

I think there will always be something slightly mysterious about great writing, but good writing habits based on empirical data will take you a long way.

(I should add - this was only a very small experiment, and the sample isn't really big enough to ensure that it is meaningful. It's an indication of one direction good empirical research could take, not good empirical research itself.)

[Edited at 2015-03-25 17:18 GMT]


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Anton Konashenok  Identity Verified
Czech Republic
Local time: 05:22
English to Russian
+ ...
Another look at this Mar 26, 2015

Several years ago, I asked myself how we sometimes manage to distinguish Brits from Americans by the style of their casual (non-literary) writing even in the absence of classical British and American shibboleths in the text. One possible answer came to me upon seeing people's self-descriptions on a large international dating site, and it was the preference for nouns/adjectives vs. verbs. My impression was that Americans use more nouns and adjectives (and, in particular, describe themselves in terms of who they are, directly stating their traits), while Brits tend to use more verbs and describe themselves more along the lines of what they like to do. Canadians fall somewhere in the middle. A question that remains open is how much of this is due to the actual mindset and how much is due to the style of language learned at early age in the countries in question. And then, of course, there's also the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that says the two are essentially the same.

[Edited at 2015-03-26 14:49 GMT]


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MurielG
France
Local time: 05:22
English to French
other languages Mar 26, 2015

Anton and Phil, do you think this rule could be applied to Chinese, or Russian? I was wondering about that while reading this article, and if I strongly agree that "most adverbs are unnecessary" (the same goes for adjectives); I'm not sure about the verb issue. It seems to me that English language uses a lot more verbs than my own language does. It would be interesting to investigate how many verbs, nouns, adverbs and ajectives can be found in the different translations of the books that are mentioned by Mark Liberman...

[Edited at 2015-03-26 10:20 GMT]


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Anton Konashenok  Identity Verified
Czech Republic
Local time: 05:22
English to Russian
+ ...
In Russian, possibly slightly more so Mar 28, 2015

Muriel, I have no personal observations on this issue in Russian, but I suspect the variations in the verbs/nouns ratio may be somewhat greater for a purely grammatical reason - the verb 'to be' in the present tense is usually omitted (except in emphatic constructions or when it means 'to exist' or 'to be present'). On the other hand, I don't really see too much difference between Germanic, Romance and Slavic languages (and I can read in about 20 of them in total).

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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 12:22
Chinese to English
TOPIC STARTER
Feels the same in Chinese Mar 28, 2015

I couldn't begin to guess at the actual percentages in Chinese - it's possible that the percentage of verbs would be slightly higher across the board, because more words can be verbs in Chinese, and nouns often tend to come paired with verbs (a list in Chinese is often not noun, noun, noun but verb-noun, verb-noun, verb-noun). But the feeling about nouns is basically the same. In technical texts, instead of talking about "digitalising data", you might well say "data digitalisation". So you get that same nounier feel in stodgy or technical texts that you do in English.

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Mark Hamlen  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 05:22
Member (2010)
French to English
+ ...
French "formal" writing Mar 29, 2015

Less talented French writers (my own value judgment) have a belief that in what they perceive as formal writing they have to use less verbs and more abstract nouns. There is a bureaucratic tradition that validates this (this tradition also existed in English, but thankfully it is dying in English).

When translating I tend to turn these clogged nouns into verbs. One favourite: "L'information du client" which means "Informing the client", with stuffy French using information as the noun for the action. French of course allow this, but a quick reader in French will stumble for a second to decide between the possible meanings "the information belonging to the client" and "informing the client." Is that the "point" of writing in this complex manner? To make the reader stumble and thus believe that what he or she is reading is more profound because it is difficult to understand?


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Giles Watson  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 05:22
Italian to English
Conflicting expectations Mar 29, 2015

Mark Hamlen wrote:

Less talented French writers (my own value judgment) have a belief that in what they perceive as formal writing they have to use less verbs and more abstract nouns.



The "more nouns, fewer verbs" preference exists in Italian and other neo-Latin traditions, too, but it is probably more useful to regard it as a stylistic expectation on the part of the audience rather than a deliberate attempt by the author to obfuscate. By and large, neo-Latins want solidity (sometimes perceived by Anglophones as stodginess) in their formal or semi-formal prose whereas native users of English tend to like fluency (which neo-Latins sometimes dismiss as flippancy). Casting key notions in noun phrases in the first case, and verb phrases in the second, are simply ways of achieving those contrasting impressions.

If you are dealing with, say, journalistic or marketing texts and want to convey equivalent effect, Mark's approach is sound. For contracts or patents, however, it might be more appropriate to calque the syntax of the original more closely.

In either case, you have to adopt the expectations of native source-language speakers to understand the nuances of the original and then slip back into the mindset of your own native language to produce a version that is fit for purpose.

FWIW


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